Unions and Their Treatment of Asbestos

Once thought to be safe, asbestos is now commonly known as a dangerous material. As far back in history as ancient Rome, it was recognized that slaves who were exposed to this substance in mines and other areas often suffered from severe lung trouble and died young. In years past, asbestos was frequently used, however, it was not long before scientists and doctors began to see that this substance was a dangerous and toxic mineral. By the late 1800s, a connection between lung disease and asbestos was established.

A History of Silence

In the early 1900s, physicians coined the term "asbestosis" in reference to most asbestos-caused malignancies. These same physicians began to warn mine and factory owners that their employees were being placed in a dangerous situation due to the fact that no protective gear was provided during periods of asbestos exposure. Unfortunately, the warnings were ignored. As far back as the 1930s, company executives in plants where asbestos was used were already staging cover-ups concerning employees who had died or become ill from asbestos-related diseases. They destroyed or hid documentation about asbestos dangers and disregarded physicians’ reports. Compensation was offered in a clandestine fashion to employees who were adversely affected while working with this dangerous substance. In order to obtain compensation, they had to promise to remain silent.

Union Involvement

It was not long until labor and trade unions stepped in to make asbestos a prime concern, and many unions around the country assisted with exposing these unconscionable cover-ups within American industry. Nevertheless, in many cases decades passed before the unions were able to improve these dangerous working conditions and receive compensation for employees who were afflicted with asbestos-related diseases. Early labor unions such as the CIO and the AFL – once separate entities – as well as other unions, including the United Auto Workers and United Steel Workers, considered it their duty to enlighten their members about the hazards involved in working with asbestos. They exposed the fact that certain doctor memos about the dangers of asbestos exposure were destroyed. These memos stated what many of the factory owners already knew but refused to admit – that asbestos leads to the development of mesothelioma. Unions encouraged employees to refuse to work with asbestos, and this action brought about radical changes in the asbestos industry. Labor unions were willing to take up the cause when everyone else refused to do so.  Though several more years had to pass before companies in other countries admitted that asbestos exposure is of significant danger to their employees’ health, unions never gave up the fight. Reference:
  • Castleman, Barry I. (2011). Asbestos medical and legal aspects 5th edition. New York: Wolters Kluwer Law and Business.